Japan travel culture feature: Japan's scary and mysterious Noh theatre masks

In its eleven hundred years as Japan’s capital, Kyoto produced a truly stunning range of arts and crafts. This heritage is very much alive, and Kyoto continues to draw not only foreign tourists but also many Japanese looking for a connection between the nation’s high-tech present and its artisan past. Few would argue that Kyoto remains one of the great repositories of living Asian arts and crafts.  The city’s craft artists are constantly seeking ways to blend the old with the new, to keep traditional arts both relevant to modern life and within reach of ordinary people. In Japan the observant visitor or resident will quickly notice that many old traditions are alive and well in new arts and designs.  Whether it be ceramics, fashion, or interior design, Japan is a place where the old is honored in the new.  This page is dedicated to this vibrant craft tradition, and to the many stores, ateliers, and workshops where handicrafts are sold or where such traditional processes can be viewed.

Noh Masks

The moving spectacle of the Noh theater is inseparable from the striking, often haunting beauty of Noh men, or masks.  Much more than a work of art, a Noh mask contains the very soul of the character it depicts.  When an actor begins to prepare for a role, it is to the mask that he or she looks to discover the essence of the character.  Until the mask is in place, the actor is simply himself, but once it is on, he is transformed—body and soul—into that character.  Yet the role of the actor is not a minor one.  Except for demon masks, Noh masks do not depict strong emotions, but rather have an “intermediate expression.”  It is rare even for a mask to be dedicated to a single role; most are general character types—beauty, old man, warrior.  It is up to the actor, through his motions and actions, to depict the nuances of character and emotion demanded for each scene and situation.  Ideally, the final performance combines mask, actor, and costume into a unified whole.

Given the central importance of the mask to Noh, it is no surprise that every Noh school treats its masks with a profound reverence.  Carved from Japanese cypress or another soft wood, the mask is then carefully painted; it is at once a masterpiece of carving and painting . Although each mask is made following a traditional pattern, they are never expected to be, or thought of, as mere duplicates.  The subtle differences between masks of the same type are very important, and an actor will think long and hard before choosing the particular mask for a performance, based on his interpretation of the role and his personal character.  This sense that the mask has its own unique character explains why certain masks are passed down from one generation to the next over hundreds of years.  Although often appearing cracked and stained when seen from close up, the very best masks spring to startling life on the stage.

Aya Iwai
Dedicated to the art of bringing wood to life

Aya Iwai has been creating Noh masks for the Kanze Noh Theater for more than 40 years.  Successor to a tradition started by her father, she has devoted much of her life to the elusive and highly challenging art of bringing wood to life.  There are about 80 different Noh masks in all, so far she has created about half of them. In general, her work is commissioned by masters of the Kanze Noh Theater tradition, the largest in Japan, which, though headquartered in Tokyo, originated and remains very active in Kyoto.  The Noh world is a Japanese subculture; a 'world' which borders on the supernatural.  According to Ms. Iwai, Noh masks are generally kept behind closed doors, in hand embroidered or special silk bags and only taken out for performances.  However, there are aficionados of the art who use the masks as spiritual talismans or guardians within their home.  Some of Ms. Iwai's are also commissioned by such 'fans' of the Noh 'spirits'.

In general, Ms. Iwai takes about one month to finish a mask.  She makes her Noh masks using the finest hinoki or Japanese cypress from the Kisso region of Japan.  When the mask has been carved to perfection the inner face is lacquered and then the outer face is cover in about 20 layers of shell powder finish.  A particularly fascinating element of the Noh mask creation process involves purposely rubbing off the finish and chipping it to give the work an old feeling.  At present she spends about five hours a day at her craft.  A one-woman show of her work was held in New York in 1990.  She has also been teaching a number of dedicated students for years.  The studio is open to students (accepted at her discretion), and classes are held on Sundays.  Ms. Iwai's studio also serves as a fine exhibition space for her work.  She welcomes foreign guests, but kindly requests that foreign visitors who can not speak Japanese come with an interpreter.  For more information about her work or to make an appointment to see her work Tel: 351-3903.